My parents gave me these seeds, telling me to preserve them. They told me these seeds would take care of me and keep me and my family in good health,” says Rajamma, a practitioner of the Akkadi Saalu farming system. Practiced throughout the dryland regions of the state of Karnataka in south India, Akkadi Saalu is a traditional diverse crop system of farming. Referring to by various names across India, it is a type of rainfed agriculture.
Changes in government policies and the need for income have shifted much of Indian farming to monocropping. These high-input practices create an imbalance in the local ecosystems, climate, community nutrition, and financial security.
The native varieties of seeds in Akkadi Saalu provide higher yields than their hybrid counterparts. Native seeds are well-suited to the soil, temperature, and climatic conditions. Unlike hybrid seeds, the yield from native seeds does not diminish over the years, alleviating concern for many farmers.
“Hybrid variety seeds sold by companies are often modified in a manner in which their yield declines after a few years of cultivation. This is done in order to keep farmers dependent on a particular corporation, thereby boosting profits. The native variety seeds are over centuries old and can be stored for extremely long periods of time without decomposing.”
– Prabhakar, farmer
According to Rajamma, native seeds are a major source of nourishment and income in this community, saying, “these are the seeds we’ve been using for generations,” both Prabhakar and Rajamma swore to never purchase hybrid seeds. Traditionally, each member of the family is expected to partake in the farming process. However, as access to education improves, more people seek white-collar employment opportunities over labor-intensive fieldwork.
To this community, the seed is as important as the soil, so maintaining the soil’s fertility is imperative. This is often accomplished by consistently rotating the crops that are sown in the field. Prabhakar plants over twenty different varieties of crops on his one acre of land, continually rotating them through the seasons.
Farmers identify crop compatibility and sow those seeds together to coexist symbiotically. On Prabhakar’s land, climbers and creepers are grown with sturdy crops, like maize, which acts as a support system. This method builds and sustains biodiversity while also being an economically viable and sustainable practice. A variety of organisms are attracted to different crops throughout the field, striking a natural balance. This system also involves cultivating living hedges to prevent staple crops from being eaten by small animals. Thus, an entire ecosystem is woven throughout the one acre of land.
Because this farming method is highly dependent on monsoons, people here have effectively charted these natural cycles. This system does not put pressure on groundwater resources as does modern farming. During the “Mungaru season” or the pre-monsoonal season, four to five different varieties of crops are cultivated. In this manner, multiple crops are sown during different seasons. This allows farmers to harvest over an eight to nine-month period, ensuring financial security. Prabhakar does not only sell whole groundnuts, he also converts them into organic groundnut oil, adding value and income.
The discarded parts of early crops are used as manure for the main crops grown in subsequent seasons. Compost produced from jaggery and other plant and animal matter is used on the field. This enables microbes and other organisms to move deep within the ground, assisting with nitrogen fixation and improving soil fertility. The compost must be mixed into the soil almost immediately to prevent exposure to air and heat, which deplete its nutritional value. To hasten this process, fields are pre-plowed and otherwise prepared. Srinivas, a soil expert, describes how soils that incorporate higher amounts of plant and animal matter absorb moisture more effectively. This is in stark contrast to land characterized by excessive fertilizer and pesticide usage. The salinity (salt content) of pesticides and fertilizers reduces the moisture in the soil. This tends to harden the soil until traditional wooden tools are ineffective; this is the reason we see more mechanized steel plows today.
The role of women is vital to Akkadi Saalu. As an integral and symbolic part of the Akkadi Saalu system, it is the women’s role to preserve these native seeds. During droughts and famines, the seeds are not to be cooked or consumed – that would be a bad omen. Rajamma fondly recalls, “it was my mother who was in charge of conserving our seeds. It is the role of the women to take the culture of indigenous seeds forward and to look after them like children.” In this dynamic agricultural system, every element holds deep value, yet it is the seeds that farmers protect at all costs. It is through these indigenous seeds that Akkadi Saalu finds its reawakening.
Revitalising Rainfed Agriculture Network (RRAN), a national network on rainfed agriculture has been working towards the revival of Akkadi Saalu both with farmers and at the policy level.